Friday, November 8, 2013

Day hike historic site of first U.S. Army battle in Wisconsin

British surrounded fort,
gunship at Prairie du Chien

In southwest Wisconsin this Veterans Day, hikers can pay tribute to the first American soldiers to defend the region from foreign powers at The Battle of Prairie Du Chien site.

The battle, fought in 1814 during the United States’ war with Great Britain, marks the first battle fought by the U.S. Army in what would become Wisconsin. Today, the Villa Louis dominates the beautiful site, and though lacking any formal trails, there are plenty of pathways perfect for families with young children or older kids with an interest in history.

To reach the former battle site, from U.S. Hwy. 18 in downtown Prairie du Chien, head north on South Main Street (aka County Road K). Turn left/west at West Blackhawk Avenue and cross the bridge onto St. Feriole Island. Take a right/north turn onto North Villa Louis Road. Villa Louis is in four blocks. Parking is on the left in front of the visitor center; admission is required to enter the site.

During the War of 1812, the United States constructed a number of forts along the Mississippi River in an effort to dominate what then was known as the Northwest Territory. The northernmost of the outposts was Fort Shelby, constructed on the island in June 1814 by about 60 U.S. troops arriving from St. Louis. A gunboat, the Governor Clark, made anchor in the Mississippi to the fort’s west.

Locals seek help
Not everyone in the small village of Prairie du Chien took kindly to the Americans building a fort on their land. A party of villagers and traders headed to the British army’s Fort Michilimackinac, where they sought help.

The British certainly viewed the forts as a threat to their fur trade. A British-Canadian militia, with the support of Native American allies, set off to take the fort.

Upon arrival on Sunday, July 17, the British-Canadian-Native American expedition positioned itself on the prairie surrounding Fort Shelby and at noon presented their terms of surrender to the Americans. The fort’s commander, U.S. Army Lieutenant Joseph Perkins, refused.

The Brits summarily attacked the gunboat with their brass cannons. As the three-pound cannons were quite accurate and deadly, to avoid being sunk, the gunboat that afternoon cut its lines, leaving the troops inside Fort Shelby with very little ammunition and food.

Flag of truce
Still the besieged Americans held out for two days. Growing weary of the stalemate, the British prepared to fire hot shot from its cannons so that the wooden fort would burn. Low on water and ammo and without any food, Perkins ran up a flag of truce.

After a surrender was negotiated, the morning of July 20 the Americans marched out of the fort and laid down their weapons. The bloodless battle was over, and the U.S. troops were sent back to St. Louis.

British forces then occupied Fort Shelby, renaming it Fort McKay. Despite losing the battle, the Americans won the war, however, and in 1816 constructed Fort Crawford atop an Indian mound on the island. Several years later, the Victorian-era estate Villa Louis was built over part of the battleground.

A marker at Villa Louis commemorates Fort Shelby and battle. Each July, re-enactors hold a living history camp and narrate the battle for a weekend.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.